25 YEARS SINCE THE PRINTERS’ STRIKE – Part 2: Capitalist state forces launch savage attacks on printers

Printers gave their support to the WRP demands to expel the EETPU and that the TUC must call a general strike
Printers gave their support to the WRP demands to expel the EETPU and that the TUC must call a general strike

NOT only the print unions got dragged before the Courts.

In February 1986 the postal workers union (UCW) was hauled before the judge who ruled that the refusal of postal workers to deliver 23 million Sun bingo cards was illegal. The UCW executive, to their shame, capitulated and forced their members to call off the action.

The defiance of SOGAT towards Murdoch and the courts meant that they were now standing side by side with the NGA, both having their funds and assets seized by the courts – clearly Murdoch had hoped to drive a wedge between the two unions.

He had failed and the print workers confronted Murdoch and the full might of the capitalist state completely united in the struggle.

Just how ‘impartial’ the capitalist state was in this war between the employers and the trade unions is easy to gauge.

The Tory government of Margaret Thatcher spent an extra £52 million on the police to gear them up to defeat the print unions.

A special site in Hounslow Heath – known colloquially by the police as Riot City – had been constructed.

Riot City was constructed as an urban environment in which police could practice breaking up demonstrations and smashing picket lines in the type of conditions that existed in Wapping, that is a printing plant located in a predominantly residential location.

It was reported that the SAS were present at Riot City in the capacity of trainers.

While the police guarded Wapping and protected Murdoch’s scab drivers as they sped from the plant with his papers, Special Branch was busily tapping the phones of leading strikers.

The highways department was also involved in rigging the traffic lights around the plant to ensure that all lights were at green when the scab vans drove out.

The government also ensured that print workers and their families faced the absolute maximum of financial hardship.

One week before the dispute began letters were sent out by both the Department of Employment and the Department of Social Security instructing their offices that claims for benefits from printers locked-out by Murdoch should not be accepted.

If the print workers were united and determined to fight for the very existence of trade unions against both Murdoch and all the forces of the state arrayed against them, the same could not be said for the leadership of the TUC.

During the first week of the strike, the EETPU was summoned to the TUC general council to answer charges in relation to Wapping and its role in providing scab labour to supplant NGA and SOGAT members.

It was widely known throughout the trade union movement that Hammond and the EETPU had been up to their necks with Murdoch in planning and executing his arbitrary sacking of 6,000 print workers.

EETPU regional organisers had been trawling the pubs of Southampton months before, recruiting the most backward, lumpen elements prepared to cross picket lines and stab the print workers in the back.

At the TUC general council the EETPU faced seven charges, namely:

• Actions detrimental to the trade union movement

• Actions contrary to the declared principles of the TUC

• Violation of the TUC’s 1985 policy opposing single union agreements in areas organised by other unions

• Refusal to participate in joint negotiations with other unions

• Imperilling the jobs and conditions of employment of print workers in News International by assisting in the production of scab papers at Wapping

• Assisting in the recruitment of scab labour for News International

• Breaking assurances given to the TUC to cease recruiting scabs in Southampton for News International

Any one of these charges should have been sufficient for the general council to have declared the EETPU outside the trade union movement and move for their expulsion.

Instead in a breathtaking act of treachery the general council, by a majority of 15 to 14, not only refused to take action against Hammond and the EETPU it also refused to instruct them to bring their members in Wapping out on strike and to cease crossing the picket line.

If they had made such a demand of the EETPU it would undoubtedly have been ignored leaving the TUC general council with no other option than to proceed against them. It was decided that it was better not to put on Hammond any demand that he would refuse.

The TUC general council accordingly instructed the EETPU not to recruit any more scabs and not to sign any agreements with News International unless other unions were involved in the agreements.

This was, as the general council was fully aware, complete nonsense that Hammond had no difficulty agreeing to.

For a start, the EETPU had already recruited for Murdoch all the scabs they needed and secondly all the agreements between the EETPU and News International had already been signed.

Hammond must have been laughing his head off when he readily agreed to these.

To cap it all the general council ended its ruling by requiring the EETPU to inform all its scabs in Wapping that they were taking other workers jobs!

While Murdoch and his lawyers were busy hounding the unions through the courts and the TUC working overtime to protect Hammond and the EETPU, the print workers and their supporters were confronting the violence of  the police on the picket line and in demonstrations outside Fortress Wapping.

With their union funds seized by the courts and with any benefits they were entitled to withheld from them by the state print workers had no money, many were forced to put their houses up for sale, yet they were digging in for a long fight against everything that the bosses and the capitalist state could throw against them.

Immediately after the sackings on February 5th, 2,000 pickets arrived at Wapping, while on the 8th 1,000 women printworkers and the wives and daughters of printworkers were joined by miners’ wives in a mass picket of the plant.

Police violence really erupted on Saturday, February 15th, when the riot squad used horses to charge the picket line in an attempt to break it.

The police horses charged the picket out of the blue at 10.00pm that night, crushing pickets against the railings on the north side of the Highway Road while ‘snatch’ squads waded into the crowd arresting people at random.

Immediately after this, Riot Police with long shields advanced on the picket, supported by more riot police equipped with short shields – all the training at Riot City was being put to use.

60 arrests were made that night and many people were injured by the horse charge and the police attack.

Mike Hicks, a leading official of SOGAT was injured and lodged a complaint about police brutality.

Not only printers and their supporters felt the blows of the police, BBC TV cameramen had their equipment smashed in the charge and the BBC made a formal complaint about police behaviour.

None of this violence by the state intimidated the printers and their supporters in the trade unions.

On Saturday, February 22 thousands marched from Fleet Street to Wapping in a show of defiance and determination to fight, 39 pickets were arrested that night.

An editorial in the News Line following this attack by the police was headlined ‘Defend Trade Unions, Organise the General Strike’.

It went on to call for workers to ‘prepare the struggle for workers’ power’ saying: ‘mass picketing on its own cannot halt the employers when they have the combined forces of the state on their side.’ (News Line February 28 1986).

While the printers were doing battle, the new general secretary of the TUC, Norman Willis, was busily undermining the struggle.

Willis, who had brought the EETPU into the TUC’s five union printing committee, arranged a meeting with Murdoch despite the latter refusing to budge on the question of the sackings.

Murdoch made it absolutely clear that he would never take those sacked back.

At the same time the print unions were equally adamant that their members would not accept selling their jobs for redundancy payments.

Given this, any meeting with Murdoch was dangerous in that it signalled that there might be a willingness on the part of some leaders to seek a settlement that did not include reinstatement.

Indeed, this danger was compounded by the General Secretary of SOGAT, Brenda Dean, who in an interview with the magazine ‘Marxism Today’ said that SOGAT would be willing to settle for redundancy payments if the dispute proved unwinnable by the unions.

The News Line pointed out that the entire state apparatus was being thrown at the print unions and that this was an attack on the whole working class.

As such, it had to be answered by an all-out fight by the entire trade union movement. The printers could win but only through the whole movement coming out in a general strike.

The demand for united action against News International was made by miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill.

He called for a mass campaign in support of the printers and insisted: ‘The TUC must stand by its policy of opposition to the anti-union laws.’

He went on to state that he was ‘sick and tired’ of hearing that the miners had been defeated saying, ‘There could not be a printers struggle today if the miners had been defeated.’

With the printers taking up the demand for all-out action by the TUC along with leaders such as Scargill and the seafarers union leader, Jim Slater, who made an explicit call for a general strike, the TUC on the other hand were engaged in secret talks with Murdoch.

Things were clearly not all that rosy in Wapping, for on March 12, 1986, 62 journalists – who had defied instructions from the NUJ not to work at Wapping – walked out of the fortress complaining about the terrible conditions they were forced to work under.

That same night a lorry drove out of the Wapping plant and straight into a 2,000 strong rally outside the gates listening to a speech by Labour MP John Prescott.

Two printers were hospitalised as a result of this homicidal act.

• Continued tomorrow